Blackout is first test for emergency wireless telecom

Subscribers placed more than 1,800 calls, Homeland Security's John Graves says.

The National Communications System's priority telecommunications services got a workout this month during the electrical grid collapse that caused blackouts across much of the Northeast and Canada.

John Graves, program director of the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service and Wireless Priority Service, said GETS subscribers placed more than 1,800 calls. Fifty-five WPS calls were made in the New York City area.

Although most of the nation's telecom infrastructure remained in operation, call volume sometimes overwhelmed the resources to or from the affected areas. GETS gives priority landline service in emergencies. WPS, a sister program, provides a similar service on the cellular networks of T-Mobile USA Inc. of Bellevue, Wash.

'WPS was used across multiple switching centers in New York and Washington,' Graves said. 'Wherever T-Mobile had power to its base stations, we had WPS capability.' The priority service was available in blacked-out New York City, upstate New York, Cleveland and Detroit.

Graves said his office is still collecting data about the completion rate of priority calls.

NCS, formerly operated by the Defense Department, now is part of the Homeland Security Department's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate. NCS gives priority during emergencies to federal, state and local governments as well as medical, law enforcement and critical industry personnel.

Numbers game

GETS users must have a calling card with an access number and personal identification number for use in the United States and its territories, Canada and most of the Caribbean area. Federal calls cost 15 cents per minute above a certain threshold.

After Sept. 11, 2001, 1,500 GETS cardholders made more than 18,000 calls with a 95 percent completion rate. The following year saw a 40 percent increase in cards issued. As of last month, there were nearly 79,000 active GETS cards.

WPS currently is limited to about 2,900 subscribers of T-Mobile's Global System for Mobile Communications network under a General Services Administration schedule contract. NCS pays the infrastructure costs; users pay a $10 one-time activation fee, $4.50 for monthly service and 75 cents per minute.

Under consideration for WPS are other GSM carriers including AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications Inc. WPS also eventually could embrace Code Division Multiple Access services offered by Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS.

'That is still a ways off,' NCS spokesman Stephen Barrett said. 'Everything depends on the funding.'

More information about the emergency telecom programs appears at gets.ncs.gov and wps.ncs.gov.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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